Magic Off Main: The Art of Esther Warkov

by Beverly J. Rasporich, Esther Warkov
ISBN: 1552380998

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A Review of: Magic Off Main: The Art of Esther Warkov
by Olga Stein

Magic off Main arrived in my office late in December 03, too late to be included in last year's gift books column. This was unfortunate because the small book, with its tasteful but unassuming cover, immediately revealed itself as a treasure. Esther Warkov's work is completely unconventional, brilliant, disturbing, confounding, and at all times fascinating. So striking is Warkov's art, I wondered why I had never heard of her before. Fortunately, Magic Off Main does not merely reproduce Warkov's paintings and three-dimensional art, the book is an expertly written study of the artist's oeuvre, her personal history and the historical and geographical context which helped shape her artistic imagination and motivations.
Born on October 12, 1941, to Morris Warkov, a Jewish immigrant, and Sarah Schulman, a first-generation Jewish Canadian, Esther was raised in the ethnically mixed, polyglot North End of Winnipeg. As a child, at the Warkov's store on Selkirk street, she would see and handle the myriad small objects for sale to farmers and other working men. Her art, always a collage, mixes disparate organic and inorganic elements. Warkov's use of objects bespeaks the fascination she has retained since childhood for things that are visually interesting in themselves but represent in addition Winnipeg's larger, industry-related, social-economic realities. The figures and organic components of her art are inspired by the ethnically varied denizens of her Winnipeg milieu, Jews and Christians, as well as persons from history and popular culture, and by the flowers and fields which are so much part of Manitoba's prairie landscapes.
Warkov's work is decidedly post-modern in its reliance on miscellany-innumerable unrelated items brought together in outlandish synthesis, which Beverly Rasporich repeatedly emphasizes, has personal' meaning for Warkov. The historical or present-day significance of these assemblages is hard to decipher for this very reason, though certain themes clearly engage Warkov and we see these treated time and again-in particular, the problem of retelling the past. The retelling suffers from snapshots, the lie of a frozen moment, the inadequacy of a part in representing the whole, and, as Warkov's reflexive irony reminds us, the artist's own collusion in bringing about that illusory or unfaithful reconstruction. Rasporich writes:

"In Warkov's camera series, the works present highly stylized realist images in magical spatial contexts. In Ice, Cat, Shutter Street Rabbi, Dreamscape, Captured, The House of Cranach, Mourning Miranda, Snap, and Memory through a Telescope, old-fashioned camera boxes, a television set, a modern camera, and a telescope are technologies that are undermined through the painting of their surfaces, or the background, with images of nature: landscapes, skyscapes, flowers, and birds."

Esther Warkov was influenced by Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Ren Magritte, but the images she gathers and juxtaposes aren't intended to evoke the unconscious, its subterranean associations and fears. Instead, in postmodern tradition, her brand of magic and realism consciously subverts, satirizes and exposes the false and distorted images-of women, ethnic and racial groups, and of past events-created and safeguarded by mass culture. Always present in Warkov's art is social commentary within a narrative arrayed as a fabulist's tableau.

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